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Preservation Needs: Big-Picture Results and National Context

The Harvard Library shared results from a survey of preservation needs across Harvard’s libraries.


March 11, 2014—Harvard’s library community recently gathered to hear an overview of preservation needs in the United States and to discuss findings from the Harvard Library’s recent preservation needs assessment of library collections.

The session, organized by Harvard Library Preservation Services, was opened by Debra Hess Norris, who shared results of the Heritage Health Index (HHI), a national preservation survey examining collections from almost 3,500 cultural institutions across the US.

Norris nodded when she heard the crowd’s concerned murmurs in response to hearing that 92% of US historical societies did not have an emergency plan, and said it was the “area of greatest surprise.” She added that if a cultural institution “did not prepare staff to carry out emergency plans,” then it was as if no plan existed at all. Norris is the Henry Francis DuPont Chair in Fine Arts and a professor in the Art Conservation Department at the University of Delaware.

“Libraries are ahead of museums and historical repositories” in securing the integrity of their content, Norris said. “But as a nation, we knew we had to do better.” She observed, however, that the HHI study galvanized efforts. For example, the Institute of Museums and Library Services developed collaborative partnerships, created forums to disseminate information, emphasized advocacy campaigns and gathered funds from federal organizations—around $13 million—to help fund conservation. As a result, Norris said, studies like the HHI can have an immense and “extremely significant” impact.

In a panel following her talk, Norris joined Preservation Services staff members for a panel discussion of findings from a preservation needs assessment the Library completed in 2013. The panel was moderated by Franziska Frey, Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian and head of Preservation Services.

Brenda Bernier, head of the Weissman Preservation Center, opened the discussion by saying, “Our major goals were to identify overarching preservation concerns across the library system…and to advocate for long-term solutions. We wanted a methodology that was trackable and repeatable, to see what improvements had been made.”

Using a variety of research methods, and drawing on the HHI as its primary model, the assessment identified, for example, that 75% of Harvard’s libraries hold born-digital materials and plan to add more in the next few years.

“It’s already in our collections,” said Andrea Goethals, manager of Digital Preservation and Repository Services. “This is a trend that’s only going to increase, and it’s very diverse material in a wide range of formats, [some of] which we didn’t expect. The implication of this across the Library is that there’s a real need to collect and support these kinds of materials.”

David Ackerman, head of Media Preservation Services, added that the assessment revealed that nearly two-thirds of the respondents thought preserving audio-video media presented the most serious preservation challenges.

Priscilla Anderson, senior preservation librarian at the Weissman Preservation Center, added that almost a third of Harvard’s libraries anticipate renovations in the next three years—and all responses from those libraries indicated concerns about the effect on collections—such as exposure to light, temperature in collection storage areas and humidity control.

Norris ended the session by noting that “The focus on all these institutions, gathering this data, combining it with follow-up visits and with overall strategy was so well done—HHI should look at Harvard’s survey before we launch the next one.” It was, she said, “inspirational.”